Ohhhhhh my goodness.
Ok. So today I started what I thought would be a harmless unit on immigration, ethnicity, and race in Italy with a third year class. We were supposed to have a short discussion orienting their ideas around Italy, and then move on to the reading about diversity in the U.K. However, maybe one student had their book, and since my goal is to get the students speaking more than anything else anyway, we started an impromptu lesson going deeper into diversity issues in Italy.
I've never before had to establish safe space in a classroom, though I think now that any other times I lead these types of discussions, no matter the setting, that it will be the first thing I do. Anyone who knows me or has read any of my blog understands that diversity issues are deeply personal and important to me. Therefore, I made a concerted effort to keep myself out of the discussion and encouraged students to answer honestly. I'd say I got what I asked for.
What came forth were glaring disparities in the way certain immigrant groups are perceived. With African immigrants, 80% were considered to be thieves, drug dealers etc, and only 20% "normal people". With European immigrants, the division was 50-50. The further east one goes, however, the closer these immigrants get to the statistics on African immigrants.
It was around this time that I began to pull things out of what my students were telling me. They mentioned again and again that this is what they saw around them. This was their reality. I wanted to honor that while challenging them to give their reality a second glance. I asked if there were any immigrants in the classroom, and there was: one student from Morocco.This was when I began to tease apart the statistics, draw out the stereotypes, and point out disparities. Why is it that immigrants of color are thought to be the worst? Whose fault is it that no one has a job? What do people come here for? What are there experiences when they get here? What is this nation's responsibility to refugees and other immigrants, if it has one at all?
I then asked my students what they thought of me. The ones who responded had nice things to say. Then I got personal with them, and that's when they got personal with me. I told them that when I am on the street I am not seen as American. I am perceived as an African immigrant just like every other person of color walking by. "If I don't open my mouth," I told them, "no one is going to know I'm American." In fact, very often I've surprised people by telling them I was American, and some people were so fixed on me being African it took them awhile to place the United States on their mental map.
I asked my students to share some more, and as often happens, the focus turned to the one immigrant student to share her opinion. Up until this point she had been silent. At first she was hesitant to share because she "risked killing someone in this class and ending up in jail", but once the words started, it was like a dam had broken and a rush of words spilled forth. It soon became apparent who that student was, and the high energy charged the classroom up faster than I knew how to handle the situation.
I inserted myself between the students, and then I set the ground rules that I never thought I'd needed to set. I clearly established the rules for safe space and healthy dialogue with the students, encouraging them to listen to everything someone says, whether or not they agree, and then respond to the statements, without calling each other names.
One of the ideas that came up was that of being a global citizen. Continuing on in this unit, I asked the students to think and write for homework about where they place themselves in the world. Do they feel fully a part of the environment they find themselves in? Why or why not? What types of things might influence someone to feel more of a global citizen than a citizen of where they come from or are currently located?
As we closed the class, I emphasized the importance of respect for one another, and I shared that I've chosen to forgive in the past, and I choose to continue to do so in the future. I imagine that I'll be sharing my Kalisz story with them next week.
When the bell rang there was an audible sound of regret, and I feel that for the students they felt they were on the verge of important growth. I am so happy for them! They chose to open themselves up to a new teacher, and we were able to have a discussion that I feel is important for this group of students in particular. I saw many looks of dawning comprehension as new connections were made, and so I consider today to have been successful. I know that there are still students with whom I do not share opinions fully, but they have begun to look with fresh eyes at their lived situation, and in the end that is what I want: not to make up your mind for you, but for you to question and critically engage with what you see and hear, so that you do not allow others to either.